The Oakland Tribune

Even with win, Mariucci's critics won't be happy
January 06, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO -- Sunday's incredible turn of events, a game for the ages, won't pry the critics off Steve Mariucci's neck. For his critics are ruthlessly unyielding with their bar-stool intellect on football.

Mariucci is too conservative, his critics carp continually. Well, how conservative is a 24-point deficit late in the third quarter that Mariucci overcame with 25 unanswered points? Liberal enough for you, critics?

"I just coach, do the best I can. That's all I know," Mariucci said of the large mountain he had to climb Sunday. "Every coach keeps coaching. I didn't hear the fat lady start singing. I didn't see anyone throw in the towel. We dug a hole and fought out of it in fine fashion."

San Francisco's 39-38 victory over the New York Giants team was one of the greatest in 49ers history, and one of the most improbable comebacks in 80-plus years of NFL playoffs.

That won't satisfy Mariucci's critics, who'll contend that Giants special teams play decided the outcome. They'll overlook how Mariucci won in spite of his own special teams' foibles and porous pass coverage.

"It's a great win for Steve and his career," Bill Walsh said. "Steve needed this aside from his job, that we can break out and win a big game against a great team."

Walsh has often spoken of his affection for Mariucci's coaching ability. Walsh keeps asking the question that begs repeating: If Mariucci left, who would be a better coach?

The answer is: Good luck trying. Mariucci's critics have somebody in mind. Let's hope the higher-ups in Santa Clara realize what they have in Mariucci.

"Critics are always going to be critics," said 49ers tackle Derrick Deese. "This game shows what kind of team we have. As players, we know what kind of coach we have."

The 49ers players, even Terrell Owens, know they have a coaching gem in Mariucci.

"If you got a coach who's going into the tank, the whole team does," 49ers center Jeremy Newberry said. "(Mariucci) is a steady factor, has been all year. When we were down by 24, nobody gave us a chance. But this guy kept his composure, and the team kept its composure."

If Mariucci's assailants leave him no rest, imagine what Jim Fassel's critics are saying in New York. A 38-14 lead with 18 minutes left, and he loses? Fassel directed the Giants to the Super Bowl two years ago, but that carries no weight at the moment.

Everybody's an expert. The 49ers have a great coach in Mariucci, who's making do with a still-teething defense, a secondary that's banged up as well as wanting, and a kicking game that must give him nightmares.

The 49ers lost four of their last seven games and were given little chance against the surging Giants, who had won seven of their last nine games.

Down 24, Mariucci went to a no-huddle offense to speed the comeback. He also ran the football to wear down the Giants defensive line, which substitutes infrequently.

Still, his critics flog him without mercy and with little common sense. A football fact of life: You're only as good as the players you're given, and these 49ers are not a great team in the mold of Joe Montana's 49ers or Steve Young's 49ers.

But Mariucci delivered these players the game of their lives Sunday.

"I don't know if we're the biggest team in the world, or the most experienced, or the most playoff-ready," he said. "But I know we have a big heart."

He then spread his hands to show a heart the size of a cantaloupe.

"I'm proud to be their coach," he said, his eyes misting. "They give their heart and soul every day. I've never been down by 24 points before (in a playoff game). I thought the fans played an important part. It took everyone in the stadium."

He meant even those critics who would just as soon see him coaching in Jacksonville or Cincinnati next season. He won't ever win their affection until he wins a Super Bowl, and even that might not be enough.

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